Magazines - let alone journalists - are accused with much regularity of concentrating on a handful of brands while ignoring others. The reasons are manifold, not least being space limitations: if magazines gave coverage according to proportional representation, Hi-Fi News would need six whole issues just to review, say, Sony's two-channel products. But, mea culpa, I really have no excuse for failing to grab something - anything - from Ayre, beyond my monthly review allocation of only two products.
Alas, Ayre is one of those 'quiet' brands. It doesn't shout, doesn't court controversy, doesn't play the pity card, doesn't bully nor spin tales of bull. Thus, it joins a host of brands who simply carry on with their business - think Copland, VTL, Rogue Audio, Lamm, Bel Canto and dozens more - manufacturers free of drama, politics, hype. So we, the press, have to be approached. Or we simply forget.
Which is unfair to Ayre, I admit. The company's head cheese, Charles Hansen, is well-respected, down-to-earth and so far removed from the snake-oil merchants who populate the high-end that I should have been drawn to him years ago. Here's a guy who knows his science, eschews fashion-for-the-sake-of-it, yet has the baitsim to admit unapologetically that, say, George Cardas' burn-in disc and myrtle wood feet '...seem to work, but I'm damned if I know why.'
So, two things make me predisposed to like the Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier. The first is that it's an achingly honest product. The second is that I got on with Charles, and that - as regular readers know - is a crucial part of judging a product if you believe, as I most certainly do, that the soul of the manufacturer is in the product.
Hansen has mixed conservative, minimalist styling with some novel features and details, so you don't feel short-changed. And though an American brand, the products have a very Euro feel to them. The AX-7 is so cleanly attired that you could almost mistake it for a power-amp rather than an integrated unit. No knobs, just eight Pez-sized buttons and a display; it shares a front panel with the matching CX-7 CD player. Measuring only 17 1/4x13 3/4x4 3/4in (WDH), it's no burden on your real estate. But for all that, you don't go wanting.
To show its seriousness, for example, the AX-7 offers two pairs of balanced inputs and two pairs of unbalanced inputs, the former made via three-pin XLR connectors. There are still those who think that balanced operation offers nothing for the domestic audio user, but any Ayre retailer can quickly prove otherwise: the sonic superiority is not hard to grasp. (As an aside, even if balanced made no difference, can ANYONE argue that an XLR connector isn't superior to a crappy, past-its-prime phono plug???) In addition to fully-balanced circuitry, Ayre is also an exponent of zero feedback.
Ayre employs FET switches in the AX-7's input selector circuitry because the company feels that FETs 'offer transparent, noise-free switching, with no moving parts.' They're also honest enough to warn the user that source components with too great an output level (exceeding either 4V RMS unbalanced with 40kOhm input impedance, or 8V RMS balanced with 20 kOhm input impedance) can overload the inputs and cause distortion. With the FET switches, 'both the signal and ground connections to each source component are switched, so that any un-selected components are completely disconnected from the system. This avoids any problems with undesired ground loops.' Needless to say, the AX-7 made no unwanted noises.
Build quality is hard to fault, and the unit operated flawlessly, thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to a sophisticated microprocessor serving as the Ayre's control system. Ayre states that, 'This microprocessor is normally "asleep" and all digital systems are turned off, including the master clock. When the microprocessor receives a command, either from the front panel or the remote control, it "wakes up" to execute the command, and then immediately returns to "sleep" mode. This system ensures noise-free reproduction of music signals.'
As that paragraph reveals, the AX-7 comes with a remote control (an all-metal 'luxury' alternative to the standard plastic device is available for extra outlay), but the coolest detail is the 66-step volume control. It's accessed at the amplifier not by a knob or buttons, but by touching the black bar above the front panel display. Neat, eh? Volume adjustments occur through FET switches combined with discrete metal-film resistors, 'to create a volume control with crystal-clear transparency and no moving parts, along with digital accuracy and repeatability.' Those 66 steps give you 1.0 dB increments, which I found just about right, though I'm sure one or two of you with bat-like hearing will deem them too coarse.
Read more about the Ayre AX-7 on Page 2.